A Novel Form of Discrimination: Neglect and Apathy in the NFL

If you listened carefully on 18 April, 2016 you could hear the cheering and partying in the New York Headquarter offices of the National Football League. The movers and shakers of the NFL celebrated an appeal court decision affirming the squalid deal to compensate former players who had neurological diseases linked to repeated blows to the head.

They were overjoyed because they had gotten away with one of the greatest cons since the tobacco industry hoodwinked the public about the health problems related to smoking. Yes, they will pay about $900 million over 65 years. But the payout is nothing compared to the 13 billion or more the league makes each year. An article by Ken Belson on 18 April in The New York Times summarized the decision in the following short paragraph:

“As much as the debate continues in the court of public opinion on whether football is safe and whether the league has done enough to make it so, the court of law has decided that the leaguecan be on the hook for damages only in a limited way.” [Read the entire article online.]

There may be a debate in public opinion on this topic, but the scientific evidence is clear and unequivocal: repeated blows to the head result in brain injury which leads to permanent neurological deterioration. It appears the judges ignored the medical evidence, the obfuscation by the NFL, the fallacious information the League used to support their case, and the total absence of substantial measures by the League to insure the epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is brought under control. “The appellate judges, sitting in Philadelphia, acknowledged the objectors’ points [that the terms were too restrictive and would not take care of many players who developed serious neurological problems over time] but turned them aside because they found that the settlement benefited the greater good among the players.”

It seems the only consideration was the monetary “reward” – a pittance by NFL standards – and no consideration was given to the growing evidence of early [age 50] progressive neurological dysfunction and dementia, early death and the ongoing anguish and suffering of families. And, just incidentally, the judgment did not mention the signal it gives – essentially a sanction to continue the brain trauma – to much younger football players: children in youth leagues, high school and college. The NFL sets the standard and there will be no effective warning for our youth, even though the younger brain is much, much more vulnerable. All the younger players get is the baggage of a high potential for cognitive decline.

The NFL admitted no fault despite the medical evidence and their blatant falsification of information. Reluctantly the NFL has admitted there is a connection between repeated blows to the head and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy but accepts no responsibility in this public health endemic. There is little hope the case will go to the Supreme Court. The legal complexities and manipulations, regardless of outcome, will not address the real issues. That is, how can the game, at ALL levels, be modified to significantly reduce brain trauma and the high risk of future neurological deterioration?

There are ruling bodies and/or agencies like the EPA or the FDA who make rulings on the health risks of environments, work site activities, food and medications. The FDA can and does make rules and modifications on medications; like a cream that could make acne worse rather than better. But there is no agency saying an activity, as currently played, which causes brain damage to our youth, needs to be modified. Congress was up in arms and held public hearings about performance enhancing drugs, but there is no uproar about sports related brain injuries. Of course it is an election year and nobody wants to insult the institution or the fans of football. In fact, there is something more ingrained in our culture that must be examined.

First, let us put aside the human sense of schadenfreude; that is the satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune or pain. Sure, our darker side is aroused when, on the playing field there is a tremendous collision and someone is carted off the field. After all, it is just part of the game, and we are not indifferent or neglectful in our fandom. Right?

In fact, the NFL is just taking advantage of our own neglect and apathy. There is no doubt the NFL, as an organization is negligent in the care and treatment of its players and are fundamentally indifferent to their health and welfare. Still, there is no evidence individual members of the NFL hierarchy are necessarily bad people, and neither are diehard NFL fans. They just care about members of their own group, family or friends and members of their own team, more than others; after all they are just football players. It is not personal.

I have heard statements minimizing the impact of injuries to the players because they volunteer to play, are generally well compensated, and they know the risks. But do they really understand the risk of repeated blows to the head and early, progressive neurological decline? Some players pay close attention to the building scientific evidence but the league and team owners minimize the risk. And it is clear, what ever their level of understanding, most players think the risk is worth it. After all, it would not be football if we changed the character and incidence of repeated blows to the head.

Do the power brokers, the owners and the NFL bosses, treat the players, generally, as a group, differently? Do we, the public, the fans? No doubt, we do discriminate; there is them—the exceedingly large, fast, powerful and menacing players—and us, which includes the NFL, a ownership and the fans. Of course, you may deny it, but we do discriminate because they are different. But their brains are not different and their brains no more immune or resistant to the irresistible and inevitable traumatic forces they sustain. Or, perhaps our discrimination is just more perspicacious: thus we, as the OTHER than them, are intellectually more astute and discerning? Or, is our discrimination invidious? It is alright for them; just watching the animals play for our entertainment?

No doubt the powers that control and perpetuate this current form of mayhem are more cunning and covert. They freely, magnanimously, offer a player a choice: play and be handsomely rewarded with money and adulation. Or the young men (children and boys) can choose not to play. But this is a Faustian choice; a bargain which requires selling your soul, your health and well being for the going market price for a quarterback, linebacker, lineman, etc.

So, for a person of my persuasion, who feels the soul is that part of us where we find meaning and purpose to our lives, the seat of our souls resides in the eloquent and mysterious circuits of our brain. A young man (child or boy), often from less than privileged circumstances, finds meaning and purpose through athletic skills and is overwhelmed with the perceived rewards of physical achievement and has a hard time seeing the down side consequences. Most are not going to peruse the medical literature for potential problems. In making the decision to pursue a career as a professional football player, which he probably decided at the age of 12, he does not get complete and unbiased guidance from his agent, franchise owner, or NFL officialdom.

In fact there is no discussion about the following: Is the price I will pay and the risk too high for my future cognitive function, worth the amount I will be paid?

There is something evil in this bargain. The lack of full and honest disclosure is malevolent. By contract the owners can and do terminate service without due process on the basis of poor performance, and the players association, the hallow advocate, is clearly impotent. The owners are in collusion with the NFL Commissioner. The owners elect and pay Roger Goodell who is appointed as the policeman, jury and judge. The player is part of a process where, in any other career, would be designated indentured servitude. Thus, by contract a relationship is established which implies, for the player, a personal, physical and economic obligation. The unstated or hidden cost to the player constitutes a novel form of discrimination: for the player the currency he pays is measured in dead neurons, torn axons and disrupted synapses.

In the course wrestling with this topic I described the problem to a friend who was totally unaware of the nature of brain injuries in football. After some thought he volunteered his thoughts: considering the overwhelming majority of players in the NFL are black, he first thought this constituted a new form of enslavement. Of course, the NFL would laugh off such a notion, just as they have tried to ignore and then minimize traumatic brain injuries in football.